The Museum of Intangible Arts and Objects: Reza Negarestani, China Miéville, and the Gallows-horse

(Image by China Miéville)

One of the great treats for Ann and me while working on The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiositiesanthology was not only to include fiction and art by China Miéville but also a remarkable story based on Mieville’s art by Reza Negarestani. The author of the incredibleCyclonopedia (which I wrote about here), Negarestani often blurs fiction, nonfiction, and philosophy in mind-bending ways. He’s one of those writers whose genius is that the images and ideas in his work take over your brain and alter your perception of the world. We’re forever indebted to China for introducing us to his work.

As part of the continuing celebration of the Lambshead anthology (official release date July 12), I asked for some thoughts on his story, and have posted both that and an excerpt from “The Gallows-horse” below. One of the strengths of a book like the Cabinet antho is that it can, with ease, encompass both traditional storytelling and the avant garde…

Lambshead Cabinet

Negarestani on “The Gallows-horse”

Gallows-horse is a fictional triptych written for China Miéville’s viscously challenging drawing depicting the abutment of a horse and gallows. Viscously challenging because the crypto-literal combination tells us what it ‘cannot’ really be: a horse that takes the convict to the gallows, or literally, a gallows-horse. So the mission was to reinvent this deliberately self-referencing combination in a geometrically weird environment. At first glance, two different approaches could be taken: (1) Renaming this object to something other than what it is (something that should not be called gallows-horse anymore); (2) Replacing these literal associations with non-literal relations, redeeming this apparently literal object with an exotic object through convoluted descriptions and esoteric conjunctions. Resisting these two slightly reactionary approaches, a third tactic was developed: Rather than escaping what the object manifestly was through feats of exoticism, the surplus literality of the illustration that is itself patently weird was embraced and amplified. So the literality of gallows+horse was trisected into three objects: the literal combination of gallows and a horse as a semantic or linguistic object, the literal abutment of gallows and a horse as a visual or optical object and finally, the literal merger of the two as a mental or traumatic object. Since each of these objects were only depicting one aspect of the combination ‘gallows plus horse’, they had to be reunited in one way or another to reconstruct the gallows-horse as depicted in Miéville’s illustration. So the second mission was to develop a story and a continuous plot by which the generic combination of gallows and a horse could transform into a particular combination, THE gallows-horse. In a way, this was an exercise in teratological surgery.

The story with its almost superficially constructed plot, its dramatic turns and twists, emotional cusp, minimal characterization and even plot holes, riddles and clues is only there to reunite these three objects or gallows-horses (the linguistic, the optical and the mental). Within the story, the literality of the gallows-horse is not an obstacle that should be overcome but a ladder that facilitates the ascension of the reader to the heart of Saragossa’s Museum of Intangible Art and Object (an obvious reference to Potocki’s novel), the hall of the Man-Object where ‘the Edifice of the Weird’ is vigilantly preserved.

Excerpt from “The Gallows-horse”

The letter to the Museum of Intangible Arts and Objects states that none of the early references to the gallows-horse written between 1936 to 1959 described or even identified it as an object or a thing. During this period the gallows-horse continually appeared in the form of a chameleonic crypt or a cipher that opportunistically mimicked the semantic context of the sentence or the phrase it inhabited. It has been unanimously confirmed by the members of the research collective that in its larval stage of development between 1936 to 1959 before it began to fully appear as an object—at least as objects are commonly known—the gallows-horse has been a linguistic crypto-object with parasitic behaviors. “Like a menace which must be assimilated by its foes to defeat them from within,” the research collective emphasizes, “the early form of the gallows-horse tends to adapt—in the most esoteric way—whatever meaning the sentence that hosts it conveys. This uncanny linguistic crypto-object demonstrates its independent reality by moulding the world of the conscious and thinking subject around itself, literally thinking the subject that thinks it.”

During its incubation period, the gallows-horse was simply feeding off of contexts and linguistic connections in Dr. Lambshead’s notes and memories in order to build an empty cognitive carapace around itself. In this period, therefore, the gallows-horse cannot be understood in terms of an emerging thing, whether this new thing would be an idea, a thought or a corporeal object. Adamantly refusing to be considered as something (let alone a unified thing made of a gallows and a horse), the gallows-horse is the very personification of the primordial death of all meaning par excellence that oscillates between sense and non-sense depending on its mode of deployment against the parameters of human perception. In this early linguistic incubation period, the deeper you dig into the context where the gallows-horse is buried, the more promiscuous you find the gallows-horse is in relation to its semantic and semiotic neighbors. In digging for the true gallows-horse, you simply dig out nothing. In its basal form—that is the gallows-horse before it is born as a distinct idea and is manifestly imagined—the gallows-horse can be anything precisely because it is nothing.

Image of the gallows-horse copyright (c) 2011 China Miéville; text copyright (c) 2011 Reza Negarestani.


  1. Divers Hands says

    In celebration of the Glorious Doctor’s Work, I picked up a copy at a local bookstore, who appear to have ignored your “official” release date. (I didn’t feel like goading my friendly neighborhood bookseller too much though, many of the employees have taken to cursing the name of a particular author who’s work will also be releasing on the twelfth…) I can honestly claim this to be one of the most beautiful books I now own. It is a truly gorgeous artefact in its own right, and that is without having supped at the literary bounty it contains.

    My deepest and sincerest congratulations (and professional jealousy) go to the editors and designers of this very fine volume.

  2. jeff vandermeer says

    actually glad to hear it is already in bookstores! and thanks so much re the kind words! major kudos to HarperCollins for believing in this book.

  3. says

    This specific blog post, “Ecstatic Days ? Blog Archive ? The
    Museum of Intangible Arts and Objects: Reza Negarestani, China Miéville, and the Gallows-horse” displays the fact that u fully understand everything that you r writing
    about! I 100 % agree. Thank you -Rebecca